Over the past few years I have written a lot about my oscillating struggles and frustrations with taking pictures. In all honesty, at this point I am boring even myself with the constant references and introspections – but hey, if that isn’t what a blog is for, I’m not sure what is.
This is a topic that I’ve been mulling over again recently, and perhaps to a greater depth than usual. Since I’m a big YouTube star now (or at least, because I actually can generate some kind of income from that platform), I’ve put together a video talking about some of my thoughts:
Given that this is, well, err, a photo blog though, it makes some sense to talk a bit about it on here as well, and since I am not just out for the clicks, I am going to write this up distinctly and separately from the video – so it will be on the same topic, but not just a carbon copy of what I said there. I know, I know… what an incredible amount of value for you, my avid reader. Perhaps if you’d like to repay my dedication, you could buy a copy of my latest photo zine. It is perhaps ironic to sell a photography book on a post about why I hate photography, but hey.
After publishing this, I realised that I had written a post back in August of 2020 that was also called ‘Why I hate photography’. So err, make of that what you will.
Taking pictures has been a huge part of my life for a long time – to the extent that I often felt like it is something that was intrinsically tied into my identity. Ever since I was a wee guy, the way I captured moments and related to the world around me was through ‘photography’ (though I actually hate that word… you can watch the video above if you want to know more) – and before long I became the person that was just expected to have a camera. That was great in many ways, as it meant I could become invisible to some degree, and having a ‘purpose’ in whatever situation helped minimise any social pressures that I felt. I was never the sort that felt comfortable in groups or that could easily relax enough to get into things, and the camera became key to managing all of that.
I eventually parlayed my obsession into an occupation, eventually getting paid to take pictures at events including nightclubs, gigs, festivals and more – even racking up some decent publication credits in the process. Inevitably, I was roped into shooting a bunch of weddings too, though I always refused to take any money for these, as the implied pressure was too much for me to willingly take on.
There’s a common idea that transitioning a creative passion into a job will always turn out badly, and that definitely can be the case. However, I have to say that I never really felt like that (though I am sure if you search hard enough you could probably dig up blogs where I say otherwise). My relationship with photography definitely changed, but not really in a negative way. I actually enjoyed having some kind of validation for my skills, and wasn’t bothered about taking pictures in a way that fitted a brief… the bit I got fed up of was relying on volatile freelance income, the stress of arguing with people over unrealistic expectations, turning up to events to discover every. single. time. that I ‘wasn’t on the guestlist’ (despite quadruple checking in advance and being assured that you DEFINITELY will be on there), and having to chase up companies to get paid. The NME took about six months to pay me £50 once for publishing one of my shots (which they had agreed to in advance, by the way), and the amount of effort it took to make that happen was exhausting.
Nah, making money off of photography was never the reason that my feelings about photography changed so dramatically. That happened long after I stopped that kind of work. It was something else.
One of the big things that I came to really hate about being a photographer was having to deal with other photographers. Now, don’t get me wrong – I am not talking about all photographers. Instead, I am referring to a very specific attitude that seems to be prevalent amongst a significant number of folks who consider themselves to be photographers.
To give a concrete example of what I’m on about: I can’t tell you the number of times that over the years I have had people come up to me while working, look my camera up and down, and then proceed to tell me all about how their camera is the newer or better model than whatever I happened to be shooting with, or to give me unsolicited ‘advice’ on how to take ‘better’ pictures. I even had one person point blank state that I was ‘holding the camera wrong’! All of this came despite the fact that I had been working in that position professionally for years, and was often followed up by the realisation that these people really didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.
There are know-it-alls like this in every area, but with photography there always seemed to be this excess of people who felt the urge to talk about gear, or their experiences in such a way to put down other people as if it was some kind of competition – and I could not be less interested in that.
When I first started working professionally, I was one of the youngest freelance press photographers kicking about the spaces I spent time in, and I was really surprised at how welcoming and supportive the more established folks were. There seemed to be an inverse relationship between the experience somebody had, and how open they were. Those with the least right to be patronising were usually the worst.
Unfortunately, I found that dynamic changing over the course of a few years, as the market became increasingly saturated by newer folks who were primarily interested in themselves, engaged in some kind of competition unnecessarily. Unlike before, where snappers would share the rates they were being paid, give each other tips for angles, and suggest each other for jobs, it became very antagonistic… every person for themselves.
If you are a photographer and reading this: Be kind to each other. This isn’t a contest. Talk about how much you get paid. Tell each other if there are openings or opportunities for work. Offer up folks to cover events when you can’t. Your success doesn’t need to come at the expense of others’.
One of the big reasons that I fell out of love with photography was that it simply didn’t provide me with the kind of creative fulfilment that I was able to get from other pursuits, such as making music.
There have been multiple periods in my life where I’ve been unable to think of or focus on much else other than taking pictures. In many ways, it actually encouraged me to get out and do things, as you had to actually experience life in order to document it. Unfortunately though, it isn’t really practical to keep up that kind of pace – especially not as you get older and life stabilises.
The thing I was always most interested in capturing was people, and or the places that they inhabit. I couldn’t really care less about buildings or landscapes or abstract macro shots of flowers. For me, the spark and the energy was in candid portraits or street photography. However, that meant that I was incredibly reliant on others to satisfy the cravings – and despite me asking basically everybody I know at one point or another if I could take their picture, the best laid plans often just wouldn’t pan out.
On top of practicalities though, I more frequently found that even when I had managed to get a good run of shooting, it never scratched the itch – no matter how good the shots were. Like some kind of addict, I immediately wanted more. It was impossible to feel any kind of satisfaction, as I was always looking for the next fix. Again, when I started to focus more on making music, I had the complete opposite experience. I could produce something from scratch, alone, in my flat, and feel pleased with the output.
I wonder to what extent this feeling is created by the fact that photography is often more of a ‘documentary’ style of activity. In the sense that – unless you are setting up a very particular fashion shoot with complete control over all the elements – you are effectively just capturing something that already exists. There is of course creative input and expression there, but it’s not quite to the same level or depth as making a bit of music from nothing. For this reason, I’ve never been a fan of the idea that you ‘make’ a picture. To me, ultimately the act is about taking something; finding what is already there and preserving it. That’s fine – but also a very different process.
Ironically, the activity that used to help me feel comfortable in social situations began to have the opposite effect. Instead of being able to disappear into the background with my camera, I felt like I was much more conspicuous because of it. While people that knew me well were used to its presence, meeting new folks meant constantly having to navigate questions of whether or not they were fine with having their picture taken. More and more I felt a keen self of self-awareness that I hadn’t quite before – at least in the sense of the instrusiveness of the practice of documentation.
Perhaps this partly comes as a reaction to the proliferation of cameras and photographers; the sheer abundance of folks taking pictures… though in some ways you would surely think that would ease anxiety as opposed to increasing it. Then again, it’s one thing to be a sole discreet photographer, and quite another to be part of a pack of three or four. I’ve never liked photo walks or similar, and all of that began to put me off.
Something else that I came to realise – or at least – feel in a deeper way – was that not everything needs to be documented. Sometime along the way, that shield that had so effectively helped me avoid feeling out of place because of my inability to properly be in and experience situations – had in turn become the barrier that was preventing me from doing just that. Some moments – particularly those of real connection between people – need to be fully absorbed and appreciated for what they are – without the instrusion of a camera.
I was fed up of being the intruder.
Well, this has become quite the melancholic reverie, hasn’t it?
Despite the fairly stark assessment of my current position, I don’t want to accept that this is how the state of things will be from now on. This is definitely more than just the regular waxing and waning of interests over time, and perhaps my perspectives really have changed to such a degree that I’ll never get back to how things were before. Thinking about it, that’s actually not a bad thing. The question is whether or not I’ll be able to find some kind of balance, that let’s me enjoy and – most importantly – get satisfaction out of taking pictures in a way that I’ve lost, or perhaps never even had before.
So what’s the big plan? Well, I am going to buy another camera.
Hahahaha yeah I know. Ludicrous. Foolish. Sickening. But hear me out, as I am half joking.
At this stage, I feel like I’ve come to a point where I need to make an active effort if I am going to change or revitalise some of my relationship with taking pictures. That will inevitably include putting myself in what-will-at-first-be potentially uncomfortable positions. I have a huge collection of old, interesting lenses that I’ve never made the most of – partly because just as I was getting into the swing of things, the pandemic struck and killed off any opportunities to get out and about.
I am going to dwell on some of the discussions I’ve had with folks around this whole topic – particularly around the pressure of not using particular cameras enough to justify owning them – but also what role I want (or need) photography to play in my life. Perhaps, things have just changed – and I’ll take the occasional pictures when I travel, and that’ll be it. If so, that’s fine. Or maybe not. Maybe I should focus on trying to find some of what I feel like has been lost. We’ll see.
2 thoughts on “Why I Hate Photography”
Hey Steve, sorry to hear about your current struggles with photography. I’m not going to try to offer any advice, as each struggle is unique to the person. But I can tell you this: Many of us have been in similar positions with our respective jobs/passions.
As for freelancing, it sucks across all fields. I’ve had the same “chasing a company that can easily pay for something over a pretty trivial sum of money” bulls–t myself, and indeed the time and energy that goes into chasing companies over pay is almost not worth it. And I’m betting that’s why those companies play that game, they hope we’ll give up, and then they’ve saved the company $50.
Thanks for sharing! Yeah. The amount of chasing and stress just to get minimal amounts of cash wasn’t worth it by the end. It’s also embarassing, having to constantly follow up for fifty quid. It meant zero to them, but a lot to me!